Two thousand, six hundred, and sixty five miles. That’s like driving from Los Angeles to Cleveland. Or from Salt Lake City to Boston. That’s four trips between Paris and Berlin. It’s three-and-a-half trips between Beijing and Shanghai. It’s also approximately one-and-a-half journeys around the circumference of the moon. It is also the distance that my wife and I drove in total during our road trip to the Midwest over the holiday break.
Two days before Christmas, my wife and I loaded up her Jeep Grand Cherokee and set off from New Jersey, driving as far west as the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. With a goal of reaching our destination by Christmas Eve afternoon, our drive westward was a straight shot from the East Coast, stopping only for gasoline, the occasional break, and a brief stay at a hotel, waking before sunrise to get back on the road. Over twelve hundred miles in twenty-seven hours is quite the haul!
Our time in Minnesota and Wisconsin was full of family, friends, and relaxation. Our return trip included detours to a scenic bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the world’s largest boot (and the world’s largest six pack), a classic car museum, and a historic Native American archaeological site. It was a fantastic trip!
So sit back, relax, and let us take you halfway across the country!
How long does it take to drive from New Jersey to Minnesota? For-ev-errrrrrrrr…
Leaving home at lunchtime, we crossed the Pennsylvania state line about an hour later.
I snapped this photo as we crossed through central PA. Little did I know that this would be one of the last times we would see blue skies until we returned to NJ!
Once we crossed the Ohio state line, we began looking for places to stop for the night.
COVID has certainly changed our approach to traveling over the past two years. For instance, we now stay almost exclusively at suite-style hotels. We pack most of our meals when we drive long distances, putting our food in a plug-in cooler in the back of our car (a Coleman 40-quart PowerChill thermoelectric cooler that plugs into any 12-volt outlet in your vehicle). A suite-style hotel gives us a kitchenette where we can store and prepare food for the next day’s travels. If we get takeout, we also like eating off proper dishes in the hotel, and not resorting to plastic forks and knives. None of these concerns would have crossed our mind pre-pandemic. For this trip, a Hilton Homewood Suites was our overnight lodging of choice.
Departing before sunrise, we crossed into Indiana well before lunchtime.
A few hours later, we were crossing into the Land of Lincoln: Illinois.
Before leaving Illinois, we stopped by the city of Rockford to visit a unique attraction in Sinnissippi Riverfront Park. It also gave us a chance to stretch our legs and take a walk after several hours in the car.
In 1987, the city of Rockford installed a series of sculptures by a Wisconsin-based artist. These statues, hewn from rock, stand guard over the city, keeping watch from the water’s edge (via Atlas Obscura).
Say what you will about The Open Road Ahead… we sure know how to discover roadside oddities!
Woohoo! Wisconsin!! Except… it would take another five hours to reach our destination. Newsflash: Midwest states are really big.
We then encountered some of the worst fog either my wife or I had ever seen. Can you tell which restaurants are advertised on the blue sign on the right? Yeah, neither could we.
The hours of driving were all worth it though, as we enjoyed a wonderful Christmas holiday with dear relatives. The Birds of Winter, Year II
Our relatives’ house is prime bird watching territory. As I did last year, I camped out with my zoom lens trained on the trees in the backyard and enjoyed the show.
This American woodpecker made for an interesting subject on a snowy afternoon.
A barred owl was an unexpected visitor. I’ve never seen one in person before.
Despite its massive wingspan of almost four feet, the barred owl is almost entirely just feathers – a typical adult weighs less than two pounds (via Sibley Birds East).
This northern cardinal came dressed in his finest holiday colors.
A herd of deer criss-crossed the field periodically. These two paused just long enough for me to snap this photo.
While temperatures hovered around 0 degrees and I retreated to the kitchen for a hot cup of coffee, the birds and animals continued on with their lives.
Speaking of the elements, the region was hit with several snowstorms while we were in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Once again, nothing but rave reviews for the Nokian WR G4 SUV tires and the all-wheel drive capability of the Jeep.
And there was snow. Lots of snow. It made for some beautiful winter scenes… and some fun driving!
While many of our meals were home-cooked, I did find a couple of really cool restaurants during our trip. Friends introduced us to Shish, a Mediterranean restaurant in St. Paul that specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. I had the gyro rice bowl (delicious) while my wife ordered (and loved) the chicken curry dinner. To note for next time: one of our friends ordered the Shish Burger – a burger topped with feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, and hummus. It looked amazing. I might have to give it a try!
I was also introduced to Taco John’s, a taco chain located in the Midwest and Mountain states. My order of street tacos was excellent. Taco John’s specializes in Potato Oles, which are basically tater tots. Deep fried potatoes with tacos? Does that make sense? No, it makes zero sense. But it tastes amazing. Yum!!
Finally, no trip to the Midwest is complete without a stop at Caribou Coffee. That will be an almond milk latte for my wife (left) and a medium roast with cream for me (right). Heading East
After a fantastic week with family and friends, it was time to set off for home. However, we decided to detour and explore a bit of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The World’s Largest Boot
We began our journey home in Minnesota. There was a “world’s largest” attraction my wife wanted me to see… and readers of this blog will know that I’m a sucker for any roadside attraction that begins with “world’s largest…”
Our drive took us to Red Wing, Minnesota, a city of 16,000 people. The town is named after a Dakota chief, Tatankamani, who also went by the name of Red Wing. Like many Dakota leaders, Red Wing at first supported the British in the War of 1812, before switching sides to support the United States. Red Wing’s village was on a bluff high above what is now the downtown area of the city (via Wikipedia).
Red Wing is also home to Red Wing Shoes, which gained fame for equipping American soldiers with boots during WWI and WWII. Today, the company is best known for their work boots, and are used in almost any industry. The World’s Largest Boot (size 638 1/2) was recognized in 2005 by the Guinness World Records. At twenty feet long and sixteen feet tall, a human would have to be 20 stories tall to wear it.
The World’s Largest Boot is in the Red Wing Shoes retail headquarters. On the second floor is a small museum, telling of the company’s history. Pictured are the very first pair of boots ever made in the factory, in 1908. They were given as a gift to a worker’s son, who went on to work for the company as well. Years later, he donated the pair back to the factory.
What I found most interesting was a display that explained how a boot goes from raw materials into a finished product. The museum was cool… but it was time to go to our next destination! The Eagles of Alma
We then crossed back into Wisconsin and headed south. Just outside of the town of Alma, my wife slammed on the brakes when she spotted some beautiful creatures in a tree by the side of the road.
We stared at two bald eagles, perched high in the tree. She pulled over, and I dashed out of the car, crossed the road, and began taking photos.
Interestingly, eagles are monogamous. They will bond with one partner for the duration of their lives, and although their courtship rituals (in midair) are spectacular, it is the act of nest-building that cements the relationship between a male and female (via the National Audubon Society).
Maybe one of my favorite photos from our entire trip! Buena Vista Means a Good View!
Our next stop was a little further south in Alma, to Buena Vista Park, high atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. A snow-covered, winding road took us to the park… we were glad for all-wheel drive and those Nokian tires!
The view from the park was gorgeous, but I thought rather than photographs, perhaps a short drone video could better tell the story:
Sunny the Sunfish
“We have GOT to stop here!” my wife exclaimed as she searched her phone for attractions along our route. Right she was – Sunny the Sunfish, the official mascot of Onalaska, Wisconsin. Onalaska bills itself as the “sunfish capital of the world,” and they have the statue to prove it. Grace, meet Sunny. Sunny, this is Grace. Dahl Auto Museum
Our next stop was to a small classic car museum in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The Dahl family has owned auto dealerships in the La Crosse area for almost a century, and opened the Dahl Auto Museum several years ago to showcase their collection of vintage and classic automobiles.
For a nominal admittance fee ($5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for youth ages 9-16, and children 8 and younger enter for free), we were able to tour a small, but very interesting, collection. Check out the neon signs!
One of the centerpieces of the museum is this 1905 Cadillac Model F Touring Car. It is the first Cadillac sold in La Crosse. The car’s single cylinder engine will accelerate it to a dizzyingly fast 20 mph!
This 1911 Ford Model T is known as a “mother-in-law” edition. Behind the front seats is a single back seat, dubbed (as we learned in a previous post) the “mother-in-law” seat. Insert joke here (unless you want to stay on good terms with your mother-in-law, in which case… no jokes, please).
The 1936 Ford Deluxe Phaeton retailed for about $700 when new… approximately $13,000 dollars today, adjusted for inflation. Interesting fact: Ford adapted a Deluxe Phaeton so President Franklin Roosevelt could drive it, accommodating his needs based on his disability.
This 1929 Ford Model A Roadster was drop-dead gorgeous in person. Dahl began as a Ford dealership, and that brand’s vehicles are well represented in the museum.
Speaking of gorgeous, this 1955 Ford Thunderbird was an immaculate condition. The Thunderbird was Ford’s answer to the Chevrolet Corvette, the sports car that took the automotive world by storm in 1953.
Motorcycle fans will appreciate this 1948 Indian.
If I could have driven any of the vehicles off the lot, I’d have taken this 1972 De Tomaso Pantera. This Italian luxury marquee has built many beautiful vehicles, but the Pantera is my favorite. After breezing through the museum, it was time to set off for our next destination… The World’s Largest Six Pack
Okay, so this one wasn’t planned at all. As we headed out of La Crosse, six enormous cans of beer loomed large on the side of the road. Built in 1969 to advertise for the G. Heileman Brewery, these storage tanks hold enough beer to fill 7,340,796 cans of beer… that’s enough to supply one person with a six-pack for 3,351 years. We here at The Open Road Ahead really try to bring you the most interesting roadside attractions! Effigy Mounds National Monument
Our last tourist stop would take us to the Hawkeye State: Iowa.
Our final stop was to a rocky hillside with important spiritual and historical significance: Effigy Mounds National Monument in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. Over a millennia ago, Native Americans in this area would build enormous earthen mounds that, when seen from high in the air, would take on the shapes of animals, reptiles, or birds (via National Park Service). Although historians know the sites are considered sacred, there is much that we do not know, such as how the sites were used or why certain locations where chosen.
From closeup, what you see in the foreground looks just like a mound of snow. From the air, however, you would see the shape of a bear. The park offers staircases to the top of the surrounding hills to get a better view, but the stairs were covered in snow and ice, and we thought better than to attempt a climb without proper gear. We’ll definitely have to come back during warmer weather and explore this site again! The Return Journey
We began our homeward trek, crossing the Mississippi River back to Wisconsin. A few stray flurries in the air did not prepare us for the un-fun part of our adventure: a sleet and freezing rain storm that turned the roads into an ice-coated hockey rink in southern Wisconsin.
The frozen conditions continued into Illinois. The picture doesn’t do the roads justice – anything that looks wet on the blacktop was actually ice. The Jeep and the Nokian tires did very, very well. Temperatures eventually rose as we neared Chicago, and by the time we stopped at our hotel, we were driving on dry pavement. It was one of the more challenging drives in recent memory.
With a major winter storm bearing down on Chicago, we woke up early and got on the road before sunrise. We crossed into Indiana well ahead of any winter precipitation.
A little drizzle, a lot of gray… but temperatures were in the 40s. I was thrilled to cross into Ohio!
By the time we crossed into Pennsylvania, temperatures were in the 50s! Unfortunately, we ran into a seemingly endless wall of rain that covered the entire state. At no point in our drive through PA were the windshield wipers off. Throw in some wind and some fog, and it made for a challenging last leg of our return journey.
No photo of the NJ state line – it was too dark and rainy. We made it home safe and sound, however, and the Jeep inched closer to the 100,000 mile mark. Usually I’d say “Onward,” but to be honest… the Jeep and its drivers need a little break. The Wrap-Up
Beginning Mileage: 75,623
Ending Mileage: 78,288
Total Mileage: 2,660 miles
States: NJ, PA, OH, IN, IL, WI, MN, IA
Ice Storms: 1
Fuel Stops: 7
Average Miles Per Gallon: 21.4
It was a fantastic journey to the Midwest, spent with family and friends, filled with fun memories, great food, amazing scenery, awesome driving experiences… and two beautiful bald eagles in the wild!
Thank you for coming along on this special holiday edition of The Open Road Ahead.
‘Til next time.